2:08 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Just a couple things at the top, not quite as many as yesterday.
But I’d like to call your attention briefly to the Secretary’s announcement yesterday of the candidacy of Doreen Bogdan-Martin to become the next secretary general of the International Telecommunications Union. The United States strongly supports Ms. Bogdan-Martin, who is a leader deeply committed to inclusion, transparency, and performance and supremely qualified for the position.
The ICU of course is hardly a household name, but it probably should be.
QUESTION: You got it wrong just then. Underscoring it’s the ITU, not CU.
MR PRICE: I intended to say ITU. I’m sorry if it came out wrong. But the ITU of course should be a household name. Every time you use a cell phone, watch television, get the weather forecast, or travel by air or sea, you are benefitting from work done at ITU to coordinate allocation of radio spectrum and facilitate seamless communication between and among countries.
If elected, Ms. Bogdan-Martin would be the first woman to serve as the ITU secretary general in the organization’s 156 years of existence. U.S. support for Ms. Bogdan-Martin is yet another element of the administration’s renewed emphasis on multilateral tools and fora to tackle global issues, playing a more prominent role in the multilateral space, all while working together with our allies and partners around the world. We know Doreen Bogdan-Martin is the right person for this important job.
Next, today the Department of State is proud to recognize April as National Arab American Heritage Month. The United States is home to more than 3.5 million Arab Americans, representing a diverse array of cultures and traditions. Like their fellow citizens, Americans of Arab heritage are very much a part of the fabric of this nation, and Arab Americans have contributed in every field and profession. Many of them, in fact, serve here at the State Department and throughout the interagency, and their careers are as diverse as their backgrounds. We mark National Arab American Heritage Month noting these contributions that are as old as America itself.
And with that —
QUESTION: Really? No April Fool’s joke?
MR PRICE: You know, I thought about it. I thought about it.
QUESTION: No embassy in Wakanda? No —
MR PRICE: Thought about just not showing up. I thought that could be good enough.
QUESTION: Can I ask you one very brief one on the ITU before we go to – I want to talk about – ask about the Middle East. But just on the ITU, you know the current secretary general is a Chinese gentleman. Is he running for reelection? Is that why you guys are coming out twice in two days to support this other candidacy?
MR PRICE: Well, it’s still very early in the process. As you know, the elections aren’t until next year, 2022. Right now we’re aware of only one other candidate. That’s a candidate from the Russian Federation.
QUESTION: Oh, okay. So it’s either the current guy, if he runs for re-election, or a Russian.
MR PRICE: There – that could chance between now and 2022, but of course we are strongly supporting Ms. Bogdan-Martin.
QUESTION: All right. On the Middle East. Yesterday Shaun tried to nail you down without success – not his fault – on the question of settlements and the occupation. And I want to take another stab at it today, because frankly it’s confused a lot of people and it’s – your position is, to be frank, clear as mud, right? You said in response to him yesterday that, on settlement activity, that you want both sides to refrain from any actions that might hurt or will hurt a two-state solution. Does settlement activity in the West Bank or construction in East Jerusalem hurt prospects for a two-state solution or not?
MR PRICE: Matt, on this, I want to be clear. And we have said this from the start. We believe when it comes to settlement activity that Israel should refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and that undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution. That includes the annexation of territory. That includes settlement activity. We’ve been equally clear when it comes to the potential actions of the Palestinians, whether that is incitement to violence, providing compensation for individuals in prison for acts of terrorism. That, too, moves us further away from a two-state solution. Our goal in all of this is to advance the prospects for that two-state solution.
QUESTION: Okay. So that’s a little better, I think, or a little more clear, not like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. But does this administration intend to be as forceful in its opposition or criticism of settlement activity as the Obama administration was? Do you know?
MR PRICE: We intend to do everything we can to advance the prospects for a two-state solution. We intend to do that with the knowledge that it is in the interests of – consistent with the interest and values of the United States, but importantly, consistent with the values and the interests of Israelis and also Palestinians. This is something that successive administrations have sought to do; it’s something that we will seek to do.
QUESTION: Okay. And then do you know if the Secretary – not the President – does the Secretary intend to have someone dedicated to pursuing Israeli relations or Israel’s engagement with the Arab world, someone specific in an envoy-type position?
MR PRICE: Well, I —
QUESTION: Or is Hady doing that right now and that’s the way it’s going to stay?
MR PRICE: So of course we do have people in our NEA Bureau who are engaged —
MR PRICE: — very closely on this.
QUESTION: But I mean like a —
MR PRICE: I’m not in a position to announce any plans for an additional envoy-type role, but there are people in this building, there are people throughout our government who are focused —
MR PRICE: — on this process of normalization.
QUESTION: And then —
MR PRICE: That’s something that we very much support.
QUESTION: Okay. And then just as an aside, what does this – what do you call these agreements between —
MR PRICE: They’re normalization agreements.
QUESTION: Yeah, but what are the – what is the name for them?
MR PRICE: Normalization agreements.
QUESTION: No, there’s a specific name that they all signed onto. I believe you know what it is.
MR PRICE: Look, we call them – we call them normalization agreements. That’s —
QUESTION: Why do you not —
MR PRICE: That’s precisely what they are.
QUESTION: — use the name that the leaders of these countries signed onto —
MR PRICE: We’re —
QUESTION: — which is the Abraham Accords? Why is that —
MR PRICE: I’m not averse to using that. I’m describing what these are. These are normalization —
QUESTION: Well, then can you say it for me, please?
MR PRICE: Of course I can say the term “Abraham Accords,” Matt.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: But we call them normalization agreements.
QUESTION: Thank you. Just to be redundant on the issue of occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, why can’t you say it is occupied, without all the caveats? Can you say that it is occupied, that you acknowledge that position? It’s been like this since 1967.
MR PRICE: Well, Said, and that’s precisely what I said yesterday.
MR PRICE: It is a historical fact that Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights after the 1967 war. That’s precisely why the 2020 Human Rights Report uses that term in the current context of the West Bank. It has been the longstanding position of previous administrations of both parties over the course of many decades. Do we think that the West Bank is occupied? Yes.
QUESTION: Mm-hmm. Okay. Let me just follow up on that. I mean, if you consider it occupied – I know you’ve taken a very strong position in the past; you’ve called for ending the occupation of the Ukraine immediately and so on. Why can’t you call for this occupation to end immediately and all the human rights abuses that go along with enforcing it immediately? Why can’t you call for that?
MR PRICE: Said, what we are calling for – and this really gets to the root of this challenge – is that two-state solution.
MR PRICE: The two-state solution is precisely what will allow Israelis and Palestinians to live side by side in dignity and security, securing the interests – in the interests of Israelis, in the interests of Palestinians together. That’s precisely why are we are supporting this two-state solution, just as previous administrations of both political stripes have.
QUESTION: If you would allow me – and my colleagues indulge me – just I have a couple of other questions. It was conveyed – I think AP broke the story – that the administration has given an additional $75 million to the Palestinians. Can you confirm that? And is that – is also – are we also headed towards, let’s say, a resumption of aid to UNRWA?
MR PRICE: I’m happy to turn it over to my colleague Matt Lee from the AP to comment on this. (Laughter.) But look, we have been clear that resuming assistance to the Palestinian people is a priority, and we are working with Congress on this right now. All U.S. assistance to the Palestinian people will be provided consistent with requirements under U.S. law, and that includes the Taylor Force Act. We just announced – I believe it was last week, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, our ambassador to the UN announced – $15 million in humanitarian assistance to some of the most vulnerable populations throughout the West Bank and Gaza. That was in the context of COVID. We don’t have any additional announcements to make at this time. But again, we have been clear that we are resuming that assistance to the Palestinian people as a priority.
QUESTION: And lastly, I promise, on the Palestinian election. We heard that there are two Palestinian businessmen that are here, feeling out the administration or would be a reaction to, let’s say, the cancelation of the elections and so on. What is your position on the election? Are you like, let’s say, the European Union and you’re pushing for these elections? Give us your —
MR PRICE: Well, the exercise of democratic elections is a matter for the Palestinian people to determine. We note that the U.S. and other key partners in the international community have long been clear about the importance of participants in that democratic process, renouncing violence and renouncing terrorism, recognizing Israel’s right to exist. But Palestinian elections are ultimately a matter for the Palestinian people to decide.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask you on this. Has the Secretary been in touch or tried to be in touch with the president of the Palestinian Authority? Because there are reports from the Israeli press that Mahmoud Abbas wouldn’t talk to Secretary Blinken.
MR PRICE: We believe it’s important to engage the Palestinian people. We believe it’s important to engage the Palestinian leadership. The Secretary, for his part, has not had a conversation with the Palestinian prime minister. I imagine if there is a high-level call from here, including one from the Secretary, we’d be in a position to read that out.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Yeah, so the European just announced that there will be a meeting of the joint commission of the JCPOA tomorrow, virtual meeting, without the U.S., if I understand, unless you will be observer or participant in some way. They also say in their statement that they are going to discuss the willing of the U.S. to get back to compliance for compliance. Does that mean that you have shared with the Europeans what you’re ready to do, and that they will kind of mediate with the Iranians? And can you tell us what your stance before this meeting, which is the first one since —
MR PRICE: Well, I just saw this announcement from the Europeans before I came out here. We obviously welcome this as a positive step, and that’s precisely because we have been clear for weeks now that we are ready to pursue a return to compliance with our JCPOA commitments, consistent with Iran also doing the same. We have also been open about the fact that we have been talking with our partners in the P5+1 context and elsewhere about the best way to achieve this, including through a series of initial mutual steps. We’ve been looking at options for doing so, including with indirect conversations through our European partners. I mentioned this yesterday, but when the Secretary was in Brussels last week, there was a meeting with the E3+1, or the European Quad, whichever term you want to use, where of course Iran was a topic of discussion. Iran was a topic of discussion in other meetings in Brussels as well. Iran was a topic of discussion in Anchorage with representatives of the PRC.
So we have been having these conversations in different fora and with different allies, and in some cases partners. We took note of the Europeans’ announcement today. It’s a positive step, especially if it moves the ball forward on that mutual return to compliance that we’ve talked about for a number of weeks now.
QUESTION: Following up on that, we understand there’s an – the Iranians already met with other members of the other parties to the deal on Monday. And there’s a – an Iranian proposal which sources tell us has been shared with the – with you guys. Can you comment on that, or tell us what – is there any substance to that?
MR PRICE: I’m not going to comment on the substance of any diplomatic conversations beyond the broad outlines of what we shared, namely that we have been looking at ways, proposing ways, exploring ways with our allies and our partners – principally our European allies in this case – to effect that mutual return to compliance with the deal.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Iran?
MR PRICE: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: One, there was the sanctions waiver for Iraq today. Can you describe, is that part of this effort to explore ways to get back into the talks, or is that just – how do you characterize that?
And then also later this week, Siamak Namazi faces a grim milestone of 2,000 days in an Iranian jail. Can you update us on what efforts the administration is taking to get him released?
MR PRICE: When it comes to the energy waiver with Iraq, I would put that in the context of our partnership with the Government of Iraq. This renewal acknowledges the recent success the United States and Iraq have experienced through two rounds of our strategic dialogue with Baghdad, and several energy agreements signed by the Iraqi Government as well. These agreements will ultimately allow Iraq to develop its energy self-sufficiency and, we hope, to end its reliance on Iran.
In the interim, renewal of the sanctions waiver is appropriate until the agreement – agreements and development of the Iraqi energy sector can be fully realized and implemented. This is a 120-day waiver extension. We believe it is possible within the 120 days for the Government of Iraq to take meaningful action to promote energy self-sufficiency and to reduce its dependence on expensive Iranian energy.
When it comes to the Namazis, you’re right. There is a grim milestone coming up: 2,000 days – 2,000 days separated from family, loved ones, held in – held unjustly in detention by the Iranians. This is something that I know we will mark here, we will mark here rhetorically, but also by renewing our calls that we have issued consistently, almost since day one, through different partners, means, and channels, to leave no doubt in the minds of Iranian leaders the priority we attach to this. We have no higher priority than seeing the return of Americans unjustly detained in Iran, Americans who may be missing in Iran. That remains our goal. We have been very clear. We have been working very closely with our allies and partners and being very clear with the Iranians as well on that score.
QUESTION: I work for Kurdish TV, so I may ask questions in different countries, but starting with Iraq, the Iraqis and the Kurdish leadership have finally reached an agreement on the budget. I just wanted to see if you have a comment on that, but more importantly, the – according to some of the local sources or reporting, some of the Iraqi Shiite militias are saying that they are ceasing their attacks on the coalition forces with the condition that the U.S. withdraw troops in Iraq within a year. Is that something that you guys are also – is a goal for you to withdraw troops within a year?
MR PRICE: Well, I’m obviously not going to comment on the intentions of Iran-backed militias inside of Iraq. What I can say, what I will say is that we have the strategic partnership with the Government of Iraq. We have had now two rounds, I believe it is I just said, in terms of that strategic dialogue. It’s something that – it’s a partnership that benefits both our countries. It’s one that we look forward to deepening in the days, weeks, and years ahead.
QUESTION: And any comment on the issues between Baghdad and Erbil? Is that something that the U.S. tries to get them closer to a resolution?
MR PRICE: Well, of course, constructive relationship between Erbil and Baghdad is in our interests. It’s in the interests of both those entities, but I’ll leave it at that.
QUESTION: And one – can I – one more question about northeast Syria. Just couple of days ago, the SDF political missions representative here wrote that – and I quote – “President Biden can show the world that we can again trust the U.S. leadership calling on Turkey to withdraw from Syria.” Is that something that – are you willing to call on Turkey to withdraw from Afrin and other areas that we’ve seen multiple reports of human rights abuses?
MR PRICE: Well, we have talked about our partnership with partners on the ground, the partners with whom we work to effect our important mission – namely, in this case, the counter – the D-ISIS mission that we have taken on for some time. But I don’t have a specific comment on that call.
QUESTION: Can we transition to Russia?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Okay. Foreign Minister Lavrov said U.S.-Russia relations have hit bottom today and said there’s no date for their ambassador to come back to Washington. Do you have any response to this?
MR PRICE: Well, I think our response would be to point out why relationships – why the relations have – are in the state they are. And I think you can look at any number of reasons for that. We have spoken of several of them from this podium in recent weeks, and many of them remain the subject of inquiry, investigation, analysis by the U.S. Government, including our Intelligence Community. We’ve spoken about Russia’s assault on our democracy in 2016 and more recently in 2020. We’ve spoken of reports of Russian bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan. We’ve spoken of Russia’s malicious cyber operations, including in the context of Solar Winds. And we’ve spoken of Russia’s imprisonment of Mr. Navalny and the repression and the arbitrary detention of those Russians who peacefully took to the streets to protest Mr. Navalny’s arrest, all of which was preceded by Russia’s attempt to assassinate Mr. Navalny.
So I’m aware of the comments of the Russian foreign minister, but I’m also aware of the backdrop. And that is what is important to us: why we are where we are in terms of the bilateral relationship with Russia. It remains true that we continue to look for a stable and predictable relationship with Russia. Just because we have these profound disagreements, just because the relationship is where it is right now, doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be any areas of tactical alignment. And, of course, we demonstrated that early on in this administration by renewing the New START agreement for five years, precisely because – not because it’s in Russia’s interest but because it’s in our interest. And so when there are areas for potential cooperation, areas that are in our – America’s – national interest to pursue, we will do that. But that doesn’t change the backdrop against which this activity is taking place.
QUESTION: And can I just follow up? One thing that you mentioned was the reported bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Over the weekend, Secretary Blinken was more definitive with his language. He said Russia, quote, “put bounties on U.S. troops.” So is that now the definitive conclusion that the U.S. Government has come to, that they did actually put those bounties on U.S. troops, or are you guys still looking into it, investigating?
MR PRICE: The department is still deferring to the Intelligence Community. Those reports originated, as I understand it, with the Intelligence Community. That’s where this analysis currently rests.
QUESTION: Hey, Ned, just on Russia, do you have anything to add to what your Pentagon counterpart and predecessor at this podium said yesterday about the Russian troop movements on the Ukrainian border? If it’s the same as what you said yesterday, then I don’t need it, but —
MR PRICE: I don’t believe we addressed it yesterday.
QUESTION: But he said – I mean —
MR PRICE: Yeah, I don’t think I —
QUESTION: Yeah he did, but – Kirby did.
MR PRICE: Yeah, he – he did, correct. No, but I think it’s worth us reiterating it from here and, of course, when we talk about the state of the relationship between the United States and Russia, we can’t forget Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine. And we’re absolutely concerned by recent escalations of Russian aggressive and provocative actions in eastern Ukraine, including violations of the July 2020 ceasefire that led to the deaths of four Ukrainian soldiers on March 26th and injuries to others. Russia’s destabilizing actions undermine the de-escalation intentions achieved through the OSCE-brokered agreement of July of last year.
Additionally, we are aware of Ukrainian military reports concerning Russian troop movements in – on Ukraine’s borders. We are discussing our concerns about that increase in tensions and ceasefire violations and regional tensions with NATO Allies. You’ve heard from various departments and agencies including the State Department; Secretary Blinken had a call with his Ukrainian counterpart yesterday. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had a call with his counterpart. And National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had a call with Andriy Yermak in Ukraine as well. We will continue to be in close touch with our partners in Kyiv and in Ukraine more broadly in the face of these recent escalations.
QUESTION: But just to put a fine point on it, though, you don’t have any indication that Russian troops have left Russian soil, do you?
MR PRICE: I would not want to go there. I will leave that to the Department of Defense to speak to any tactical movements. I am speaking to our broad concerns with these escalations on the part of Russian activities.
QUESTION: Granted the situation on that border is tense and not – it’s not like the U.S.-Canadian – well, it’s not like – it’s a tense border, but in general, you don’t have objections to Russia moving its own troops around in its own country, do you?
MR PRICE: I don’t think anyone is – I think we – what we would object to are aggressive actions, actions that have an intent of intimidating, of threatening our partner in Ukraine.
QUESTION: Okay. But you have made the conclusion that these movements are intended to intimidate?
MR PRICE: We have made the conclusion that Russia’s recent escalations and aggressive and provocative actions in eastern Ukraine are just that. They’re —
QUESTION: All right. Well, no, no, that’s eastern Ukraine.
MR PRICE: That’s right.
QUESTION: I’m talking about in Russia itself.
MR PRICE: I am speaking about our concern in terms of Russia’s recent escalations and provocations in eastern Ukraine.
QUESTION: Right, and I’m talking about the troop movements, which you also talked —
MR PRICE: But I think my previous point stands that any efforts to intimidate Russia’s neighbors is something that would be —
QUESTION: Do you think that the troop movements are – is an effort to intimidate the Ukrainians —
MR PRICE: Matt, I think —
QUESTION: — even though they haven’t left —
MR PRICE: I think we’re missing the forest for the trees because we are concerned about the concrete activities that are taking place in eastern Ukraine. That’s what we’re talking about today.
QUESTION: Yeah, but the point is, is that the Russian troops’ movements that you’re talking about are inside of Russia.
MR PRICE: Matt, what I am talking about are recent escalations of Russian aggressive and provocative actions in eastern Ukraine. That —
QUESTION: So forget about the troop movements, then? (Inaudible.)
MR PRICE: That is the subject of this.
QUESTION: All right.
MR PRICE: Yes, please.
QUESTION: Do you include the troop movements —
QUESTION: A follow-up?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: Do you include the troop movements in Russia in this escalation?
MR PRICE: What we are talking about – our concern is predicated on Russian escalations and aggressions in eastern Ukraine. Of course, we would be concerned by any attempt on the part of the Russian Federation to intimidate its neighbors and our partners. Of course, Ukraine is among them.
QUESTION: Thank you. I had a follow-up on Russia and then I wanted to ask a question about Afghanistan if that was possible.
MR PRICE: Okay. Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: You announced today that the U.S. was moving all consular services to the U.S. embassy in Moscow. I know that there had been a temporary decision along those lines that was notified to Congress in December based on staffing. I wonder if there was any other motivation or reason for making that decision today.
MR PRICE: Well, we announced today that the consulate general in Yekaterinburg remains open while operations at the CG in Vladivostok remain suspended due to COVID. We continue to review our diplomatic presence in Russia to ensure that we’re able to carry out our important diplomatic activities, including providing services to Americans – American citizens safely and securely in the face of ongoing staffing challenges. We have been in close touch with Congress on this as well.
The decision to – the decision to continue the suspension of operations was made after months of careful review of U.S. foreign policy goals, the state of the bilateral relationship, which we were just discussing, and ongoing staffing challenges as well as the safety and security of U.S. diplomatic personnel within the Russian Federation.
QUESTION: Does that mean, though – does that mean, though, that you’re – you may not close down Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok?
MR PRICE: We don’t have – look, we hope these – because of our strong connection with the Russian people, we hope one day it will be possible to reopen diplomatic missions across the Russian Federation, but it’s – we’re unable to predict at this point when that might be.
QUESTION: Well, yeah, but when you’re reviewing – I mean, the previous administration, although it was the exact same ambassador, which remains – Ambassador Sullivan made the – made the recommendation to shut them both down. It sounds to me as though there’s a review about whether those closures should continue and you should abandon the property rather than just leave —
MR PRICE: What we have said now is that we’ve informed the Russian Federation that our consulate in Vladivostok will remain in suspended status. The consulate general in Yekaterinburg will remain open, but it will suspend visa and American citizen services as of April 1st.
QUESTION: Right, but that is different than what the previous administration had said. Right?
MR PRICE: We’re constantly – we are constantly evaluating.
QUESTION: Isn’t that correct?
MR PRICE: We are —
QUESTION: It’s different than what the previous administration had said.
MR PRICE: We are constantly evaluating the security situation, our ability to staff our missions around the world, and those decisions will be based on that.
QUESTION: On Afghanistan, Ambassador Khalilzad has been in the region meeting with, as I understand it, the Afghan Government as well as the Taliban. I wondered if you had any readouts of those meetings. And then can you provide any further details on the meeting between these groups in Turkey and will the Secretary have any participation in that meeting?
MR PRICE: Well, Ambassador Khalilzad, as you just alluded to, is currently in Doha. He is meeting both with the Islamic Republic and Taliban negotiating teams to push for further progress in negotiations and a reduction in violence. That has been our goal all along. He’s also meeting with other international partners to explore how the international community can best help the two negotiating sides accelerate the peace process. Special Representative Khalilzad recently traveled to Turkey, as you also alluded to, to meet with Turkish counterparts on the upcoming international conference on the Afghanistan peace process to be held in Istanbul in the coming days. Building on recent international gatherings in support of the peace process, the Istanbul conference is meant to help Afghan negotiators make progress in their negotiations and will complement peace talks currently ongoing in Doha.
During his visit, Ambassador Khalilzad and Turkish officials agreed that an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned gathering supported by high-level attendance from the international community provides the best means to accelerate that peace process. They also agreed to urge the Afghan parties to prepare for constructive participation in that conference.
QUESTION: Thank you. I have two questions, both related to North Korea. First, on the North Korea policy review, I understand it’s in the final stages, but how soon can we expect the outcome and what can we expect to see when it’s – when the review is done? I mean, is there going to be a statement explaining what the new U.S. approach toward North Korea is going to look like?
And my second question is on the meeting tomorrow between the security advisors. The U.S. had said that – has said that coordinating U.S. policy with those allies, South Korea and Japan, is a very important part of the review process. Now, does that mean the U.S. policy approach toward North Korea could change or be modified in – at least in some way as a result of tomorrow’s discussions given that South Korea just renewed its call for efforts to declare an official end to the Korean War as a way of restoring dialogue with North Korea, whereas the United States seems to believe that that should be part of the end game?
MR PRICE: Well, Secretary Blinken made this point when he was in Japan and South Korea earlier – I guess it was last month now. But he made this point in Japan and South Korea that we were there not only to share our initial thinking on our approach to issues of mutual concern, and, of course, North Korea is at or near the top of that list, but also to solicit input from our treaty allies, the ROK and, of course, Japan. Prior to that trip, Ambassador Sung Kim, the acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, held a meeting with – a trilateral meeting himself.
The meeting that National Security Advisor Sullivan will convene tomorrow with his counterparts, Secretary General Kitamura of Japan and National Security Advisor Suh Hoon of the Republic of Korea, follows on Secretary Blinken’s engagement in the region last month, where we did emphasize the importance not only of close bilateral cooperation between the United States and the ROK, and the United States and Japan, but the imperative of close trilateral cooperation. And we are gratified to see this meeting coming along.
It will provide National Security Advisor Sullivan and other U.S. officials an opportunity to hear directly from these senior Japanese and South Korean officials to share, again, where we are in terms of our review. We did announce several days ago now that that review is coming to a conclusion, but it will also be an opportunity for them to share with us their thinking, their perspective that we have heard, at least from other Japanese and South Korean officials during our trilateral engagements here at various levels. But this will be an important opportunity to hear that in person from them at the Naval Academy with their national security advisors.
Now, I wouldn’t want to prejudge the conclusion of any ongoing review, but we have said that denuclearization will remain at the center of American policy towards North Korea. We also know that any approach to North Korea in order to be effective will be one that we will have to execute in lockstep with our close allies, including in this case, our treaty allies, Japan and South Korea. And that’s another reason why it’s so important that this that these trilateral engagements, continue apace, and you’ll see the next iteration of that tomorrow.
QUESTION: On China, is that okay?
MR PRICE: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: The – a question about the U.S. ambassador of Palau’s recent visit to Taiwan: What message was meant to be sent to China by the visit, and does it represent a continuation of the Trump era policy of lifting restrictions on U.S. travel to Taiwan?
MR PRICE: Sorry, lifting restrictions on —
QUESTION: On U.S. official travel to Taiwan.
MR PRICE: Ah. Well, I think as a general matter, we are committed to deepening ties with Taiwan. Taiwan, of course, is a leading democracy; it’s critical. It’s a critical economic and security partner of the United States, and that’s why we will continue to engage Taiwan consistent with the longstanding “one China” policy. We will consider, just as we have, opportunities for visits to Washington and Taipei by senior-level authorities that advance our unofficial relationship and enable substantive exchanges on issues of mutual concern.
QUESTION: And so just one last thing: Is there still no sort of tangible progress from the U.S.-China meeting in Alaska? I’m just following up on this because, as you know, that the Chinese announced a number of sort of smaller collaborative things that were worked on, such as a climate change working group, things like that. Those have not been confirmed by the U.S. side. But is it still the case that basically, from the U.S. perspective, there wasn’t really any tangible progress made on specific issues stemming from that meeting?
MR PRICE: No. I would distinguish a bit, parse a bit what you are saying. Let me just back up for a moment and repeat what I said yesterday, that our relationship with the government in Beijing is one that is predicated on competition. As the Secretary has said, it is a relationship that has competitive elements, it is one that has adversarial elements, but it’s also one that can, and in fact probably should, have cooperative elements. And we did have an opportunity in Anchorage to discuss with the PRC representatives some of those cooperative elements. Climate is one of them; Iran was one of them. As I talked about yesterday, there are some alignment of our interests when it comes to Burma and other regional challenges.
Now, I think there is a difference between saying there was no progress and not having a grand announcement about a new working group or a new initiative. There is work that is going on within this building, within other elements, within other departments and agencies of the Executive Branch that will help us further those areas of cooperation, those areas where it is in our interest to cooperate with the government in Beijing, that we will do so. And that work is ongoing.
QUESTION: That’s the first time from this podium anyone has agreed to parse something that someone else has said. I’ll tell you that that’s historic right there.
MR PRICE: There we go.
QUESTION: I feel honored.
MR PRICE: I will take it. Mark this moment.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. Just to follow up on the North Korea question, is tomorrow’s trilateral meeting sort of the final stage before the review process is finished? Or do you anticipate you’ll need further consultations with allies or within the U.S. Government before the review’s complete?
MR PRICE: Well, I wouldn’t want to go beyond what we said before, and that is namely that our review of our North Korea policy is coming to a conclusion. It is a review that has been informed throughout that process by consultations with our allies, in this case the South Koreans and the Japanese, but also with other partners. Secretary Blinken heard that directly, Ambassador Sung Kim; many others in this building have engaged in those consultations as well. This will just be the next iteration in that consultative process as we bring this review to a close, but I wouldn’t want to put a firm deadline on it.
QUESTION: And then just quickly on Hong Kong, does the department have any statement regarding the verdict that was announced against the seven pro-democracy activists?
MR PRICE: We do. Today’s convictions in Hong Kong of seven pro-democracy activists on politically motivated charges once again show the degree to which the PRC and Hong Kong authorities seek to crush all forms of peaceful dissent in the city. The United States continues to condemn the PRC’s continuing assault on fundamental freedoms and democratic institutions in Hong Kong. The April 1 convictions are yet another example of the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms by PRC and Hong Kong authorities. The seven pro-democracy activists – Martin Lee, Jimmy Lai, Albert Ho, Margaret Ng, Cyd Ho, Lee Cheuk-yan, and Leung Kwok – participated in a peaceful assembly attended by 1.7 million Hong Kongers.
The United States continues to stand with those millions of Hong Kongers who have peacefully demonstrated to protect the autonomy and freedoms promised to them by the PRC. And just as you saw earlier this week, and in fact last week too, we will continue to hold to account those authorities in Beijing, those authorities in Hong Kong who seek to erode those fundamental freedoms and those autonomies to which Hong Kong is due.
QUESTION: There was an exclusive report on Wall Street Journal today that the U.S. has directed the Pentagon to begin withdrawing some military capabilities from the Gulf region. I know that this question should be asked to your colleagues in the Pentagon. I’m just wondering if you have anything to say on this.
And secondly, if I may on Syria, what’s the U.S. policy towards the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? Does the U.S. Government think that he shouldn’t be part of that country’s future? Thank you.
MR PRICE: Well, first starting with Saudi Arabia, the Department of Defense announced in February, early February, that DOD would conduct a global force posture review of the U.S. military footprint, resources, strategy, and missions at the directive of the President. We, of course, would in fact refer you to the Department of Defense for any details there and especially when it comes to potential troop movements or reallocations.
When it comes to our relationship with Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia is a key partner on many priorities, including regional security and counterterrorism. Saudi Arabia faces significant threats to its territory from Yemen and elsewhere in the region. Attacks on Saudi Arabia put the lives of innocent civilians, including U.S. citizens, in danger. And that’s why we’re committed to working together to help Saudi Arabia strengthen its defenses against these threats. There are many areas where we believe it is in our interest to maintain strategic cooperation with Riyadh, and that includes working together to deter and defend against threats to the kingdom, including those ultimately emanating from Iran. We do want a working partnership with the Saudis to help defend against this aggression, to end the war in Yemen, and to take on other challenges.
Now, of course, we have talked about the ways in which we have sought to recalibrate that relationship, to recalibrate it in such a way that it corresponds both to our interests and to our values. But we will continue to stand by our partner, Saudi Arabia, in the face of these threats that, as I’ve said before, jeopardize Saudi civilians as well as Americans in the region.
QUESTION: And on Syria, the U.S. position towards the – or the policy towards the Syrian president?
MR PRICE: Our policy towards Bashar al-Assad has not changed. He has slaughtered his own people. He has engaged in indiscriminate violence using chemical weapons against his own people. He has done nothing, of course, to regain legitimacy that he has long ago lost. Our goal is to work to ease the humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people as we seek to bring about a political solution to this longstanding conflict.
QUESTION: But should he be excluded in any agreement in Syria or, like, how does the U.S. see the future of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria?
MR PRICE: We believe that stability in Syria – and, for that matter, within the greater region as well – can only be achieved through that political process that I spoke to, a political process that represents the will of all Syrians, and we’re committed to working with allies, partners, and the UN to ensure that a durable political solution is within reach.
QUESTION: But just to follow up on that, Ned, I mean, I remember as far back as 2011, August 2011, when the secretary of state then said that he lost his right to govern, whatever; his days were numbered and so on. Now, if he enters, let’s say, a legitimate election or election that you would approve of and can get the support of many Syrians – as there are a lot of Syrians that support him – would you then see a way of working with him?
MR PRICE: Again, our focus is on bringing about, advancing a political settlement that brings stability, security, and an end to the suffering of the Syrian people. As I said before, Assad has over the course of the many years since 2011 – the 10 years, that grim milestone that we just marked not all that long ago – he hasn’t regained that legitimacy in our eyes, and there is absolutely no question of the United States normalizing relations with his government.
We are, at the same time, not in the business of trying to engineer regime change in the region. But we will demand accountability and justice for the Syrian people, the Syrian people that have suffered enormously and horrifically under the rule of Bashar al-Assad.
QUESTION: But he’s now outlasted two presidents, U.S. presidents. He’s on his third. I mean, he’s not quite at the Fidel Castro level for someone that you guys consider to be a pariah, but he’s – his days have been numbered for thousands and thousands – thousands of days now according to you guys.
So the point – I guess the question is: When you say that you will not normalize relations with his government, does that mean that you – the U.S. will not normalize relations with any government – with a government that he leads? Does he have to go in order for relations to get back to somewhat normal?
MR PRICE: Matt, I wouldn’t want to try and set out what that political settlement would look like here from the podium. What I will reiterate is that our goal is to advance that political settlement to bring precisely the security, stability, and an end to the humanitarian suffering of the people of Syria.
Thank you all.
QUESTION: Just quickly, does that —
MR PRICE: Yes, very quickly.
QUESTION: Does that also include the SDF having a seat at the table?
MR PRICE: Again, I’m not going to spell out what that political settlement might look like from here, but we hope to make progress on it. And I should say you heard from the Secretary earlier this week about the importance of humanitarian access. You heard from Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield about our profound financial commitment to the Syrian people, some $500 million that was announced in U.S. funding just earlier this week.
So thank you all very much.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:56 p.m.)
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